This blog post was authored by Madison Arnold-Scerbo, a Library of Congress summer Junior Fellow in the Science Reference Section, and Tomoko Y. Steen, Ph.D., a Science Reference & Research Specialist in the Science, Technology and Business Division of the Library of Congress.
Many cat owners will tell you they can interpret the meaning of their pet’s sounds. One type of meow might mean “feed me!,” while another might mean “pet me!,” and yet another would mean “get away from me!”
But are these actual words that can be translated and compared among different cats? Do they constitute an actual language?
Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Theories
In 1895, an author named Marvin R. Clark published a book called Pussy and Her Language, which addressed this question exactly. (A full text version of Clark’s book is available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library).
In the 1890s, cats held a very different place in society than they do today. They were only recently viewed as household pets. Previously, cats were mainly thought of as vagabond mousers who could roam around outdoors and fend for themselves. Clark spent much of his book defending cats, citing examples of their intelligence and positive attributes, such as their ability to calm their owners with purrs.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Clark’s book is the essay by a French Professor, Alphonse Leon Grimaldi. Clark translated Grimaldi’s essay “The Cat,” and the complete version is included in the text.
Grimaldi began his essay by defending the merits of cats; however, he took his argument a step further by asserting that cats have an actual language that can be understood by humans. This included both vocalized words and physical signs. As an example, he described various meanings of tail movements. A tail straight up in the air indicates pride and satisfaction; while a tail waving side to side shows dislike. A tail curled under the body means fear; while a tail pointed towards the fire signifies rain is on the way (Clark, 120-121). (All but one of these examples remains a commonly held belief about cat tail signals… I’ll let you guess which one is not).
Regarding vocal language, Grimaldi goes beyond the broad approximations of meanings mentioned above. His precision and detail-oriented approach to cat language can be seen in this quote:
In the word part of the language of the Cat there are, probably, not more than six hundred fundamental words, all others being derivatives. Consonants are daintily used, while a wide berth is given to explosives and the liquid letters “L” and “R” enter into the great majority of sounds. The sounds of the labials are not frequently heard, but the vowels, A, E, I, O, and U, go far toward making up the entire complement of words in the language of the Cat. (Clark, 103)
Grimaldi analyzes the sounds and vocabulary of cat language in the same way you would analyze human language. In his text he also includes translations of numbers and some of the most commonly used phrases in cat language. (See figure 2)
It is not entirely clear how accepted or popular Grimaldi’s theories of cat language were at the time. One indication comes in a passage in the 1918 book by Royal Dixon called, The Human Side of Animals. The goal of The Human Side of Animals was to prove that there are more similarities between humans and animals than the human ego allows us to believe. In his chapter entitled, “The Language of Animals,” Dixon argues that animals possess ideas and the ability to reason which are transmitted through language (Dixon, 99). However, his conceptions of that language differ from Clark and Grimaldi. Dixon wrote that, “No one claims that in the language of animals there are principles of construction such as we find in the human languages” (Dixon, 113). Clearly he was not familiar with Grimaldi’s work, although it was published two decades earlier!
Twenty-first Century Theories
Scientists have observed that cats rarely meow at other cats. Instead, they have a variety of other methods which they use to communicate with their peers, such as tail movements and body postures. Yet, cats have learned to meow as a way of getting human attention and convincing their human to do something for them.
But is this type of communication a language in the way that Grimaldi believed? Twenty-first century cat behavioral experts have outlined similar theories of cat translations. The book Original Catfancy Cat Bible contains a whole chapter about feline communication. In addition to body language and tail signals, this modern-day volume also includes translations from cat language into human language. Here are a few examples:
Mew – plea for attention
MEE-o-ow (with falling cadence) – protest or whine
MYUP! (short, sharp, single note) – righteous indignation (Robins, 467-469 )
A notable difference is these interpretations are all expressions of emotion or pleas for attention. They do not refer to objects such as Grimaldi’s translations for “limb” or “cooked meat.”
However, there are experts who disagree. Some believe that the communication between cats and humans is specific to the human and cat involved, and therefore cannot be described as a language. In his book, Cat Sense, John Bradshaw describes a meow as an “arbitrary, learned, attention-seeking sound” that cannot be considered a language because it is not universal.
Whether or not it is an actual “language,” it is clear cats and humans have developed ways of communicating and understanding one another.
What do you think? Can you understand your cat? (If you don’t have a cat, there are plenty of online videos of cats communicating with their owners!)
Check out this recording from a 1924 song entitled “What does the pussy-cat mean when she says ‘me-ow’?”.
For more information about domestic cats in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, please see the digital exhibition, “Wild Mouser to Household Pet: A History of Cats in Science and Society from 1858 to 1922.” This exhibition includes books from the Library of Congress that are represented in the Biodiversity Heritage Library.